Innovation for the future

Uwaidh Al-Harethi, executive vice president, Innovation and Business Development at the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), speaks on campus about innovation as part of the KAUST 2019 Winter Enrichment Program. Photo by Andrea Bachofen-Echt.

​-By Tanya Petersen, KAUST News

What is innovation and how do you do it? This is the million dollar question for most growing companies with no one correct answer.

What is clear in this day and age, where governments and business leaders frequently refer to the need for 'transformation', is that the importance of innovation, and the role of leadership in this, is not questioned. To share his ideas on this critical topic, Uwaidh Al-Harethi, executive vice president, Innovation and Business Development at the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), gave a keynote speech on January 21 as part of the KAUST 2019 Winter Enrichment Program.

Life never stands still, Al-Harethi told the audience, and business is no different. If you don't respond, you will be out of the game. That's why leading technology companies place a huge importance on investing in innovation to penetrate and lead the markets in which they operate.

Samsung, for example, files around 5,000 patents a year. Amazon is the world's number one spender on innovation, channeling around 22 billion annually into this critical business area—the equivalent to a small country's annual budget—and innovation, Al-Harethi argues, starts with leadership.

"There are so many great ideas in the world, but unless they find supportive leaders or funders, they die. Samsung, in spite of [the company's] huge spending, [is] lagging behind Apple, but still they believe in spending on innovation and the commercial conversion of this innovation," he noted.

Turning to his experience with SABIC, Al-Harethi said that the Saudi diversified chemicals company makes three dollars on every one dollar spent on innovation, making this one of the keys to success in today's chemical industry. He also outlined some of the challenges he sees in his daily role helping to drive innovation through the company.

Uwaidh Al-Harethi from SABIC, a 2019 Winter Enrichment Program speaker, told the KAUST audience that leading technology companies place a huge importance on investing in innovation to penetrate and lead the markets. Photo by Andrea Bachofen-Echt.

Al-Harethi first focused on mobility, describing the electric car as a truly disruptive technology that has caused panic for oil producers. However, he sees an even bigger disruption on the horizon that will be a threat to some industries and an opportunity to others—the self-driving car.

"It will be reality in the coming two to three years. Having a self-driving car means the incident rate will go to almost zero because it's very smart [and] driven by a supercomputer with so many sensors," Al-Harethi said. "What does it mean if you reduce the probability of accidents to almost zero? You don't need the steel and aluminium to protect the humans inside the car—you can use plastic. This is a good opportunity for plastic produces and a bad opportunity for steel producers."

Despite the opportunity for plastics producers like SABIC, Al-Harethi noted innovation will be crucial in realizing the potential that this disruption offers.

"Is it the same plastic that we currently use and produce? No, because these cars need something tougher, so we'll need to change our plants and our operating conditions [and our] reactors and production line to produce this plastic. So, disruption isn't happening in the petrochemical industry—it is happening in mobility and automotive industries, but those waves may kill some of oil producers," he explained.

The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) has a research office on the KAUST campus to best network and innovate with the University and its faculty, students and graduates. File photo.

The need for a sustainable planet is also driving innovation globally, and Al-Harethi sees renewable energy technologies—particularly solar energy—as disrupting the way we currently live.

"Maybe we won't need transition towers and networks inside a city. If this technology reaches maturity when a house is built, you will only need a small solar cell and you can live anywhere in the world. You'll have electricity; you will have the internet; you can order everything from Amazon—so why do you need to be in a big city like New York or Tokyo? You can stay anywhere. So, our life [and] our habits will change," he said.

The need for sustainability is driving SABIC to innovate in many of its business units and is propelled forward by new regulations in regions like Europe where, after 2040, single use plastic will no longer be allowed.

Al-Harethi explained that the company is working on technology to chemically recycle plastic and produce a new chemical material.

"We are building a demonstration plant in the Netherlands to take plastic packaging, melt it, convert it to oil and then we produce virgin material. This may be one of the biggest solutions, and many global companies have approached us to join this project," he noted.

Uwaidh Al-Harethi, executive vice president, Innovation and Business Development at the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), receives thanks from the KAUST Winter Enrichment Program (WEP) team after his 2019 WEP keynote lecture. Photo by Andrea Bachofen-Echt.

At the end of the day, it is a part of human nature to be innovative, and some of the biggest challenges and opportunities our planet faces will help to catalyze this. However, Al-Harethi's final message was not to ignore the innovation culture within companies and organizations.

"Innovation efforts need to be strategically targeted to focus on the needs of the business and its customers and a specific culture needs to be fostered—one where failure is an accepted part of the innovation process and where 'not invented here' is no excuse for going forward," he said. "Business leaders must deploy appropriate resources—human and financial—to support innovation efforts, and speed is crucial."

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